British politics has seen it before: a good deal of political bloodletting in a dramatic Cabinet reshuffle. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan did so on July 13, 1962 in what became known as Britain’s own variant of the much cruder and bloodier German event of 1934.
Similarly, the new Prime Minister Theresa May, was intent on going a bit deeper than the surface after coming to power, removing such old Tory hands as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and replacing him with former foreign secretary Philip Hammond. The ideologically charged Michael Gove, who has made his irreparably damaging mark on British education, was also sacked, along with Oliver Letwin and education secretary Nicky Morgan.
The Brexiteer voice has proven to be all powerful in this reshuffle. Not that the followers showed much in the way of courage in the aftermath of the referendum vote on June 23. The cue for victory, rather than staying and planning the grand democratic re-adjustment, was to run away altogether. Andrea Leadsom pulled out early; Boris Johnson ran far; very far, a matter of fact.
Now, Leadsom finds herself as environment secretary. Long-term Eurosceptic David Davis heads the new portfolio as Brexit minister. But most colourfully of all, a move considered either dangerously daft or a masterstroke of counter-intuition, is the appointment of Johnson as foreign secretary.
The foppish Johnson is the sort of character who gets away with a lot, exhibiting what can only be regarded as a historical aversion to diplomacy. In terms of insulting a good number of people across a number of continents, he typifies that form of British humour that combines casual racism with political critique. Not perhaps the best resume for a foreign secretary.
He can compare Russian President Vladimir Putin to Dobby the House Elf. He can sarcastically remark, as he did on Prime Minister Tony Blair visiting Africa in 2002 upon the behaviour of “flag-waving piccaninnies”: “the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”
Private (in Britain public) school boy bravura sells. As does the highly overrated tag of eccentricity, which is often another excuse for the expression of maladjusted, boorish defects. Themes of empire, legacy, ancestry, often lace the mix. Criticise US President Barack Obama, for instance, because of his “ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
If May’s intention was to send a ripple of concern through Europe’s corridors of troubled power, she certainly managed that. “It’s a sign of the British political crisis,” suggested France’s foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Europe 1, “that has come out of the referendum vote.” Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, snortingly condemned Johnson’s behaviour as ungeheurlich, or somewhat egregious.
Ayrault’s feelings about BJ are much like those of the desperate priest determined to enforce a regime of truth on his flock. “During the campaign, you know he told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall.” This suggests that notions of “the European project,” of which Ayrault subscribes, are genuinely what they seem, honest assertions. But bad faith is actuated on both sides of the channel when it comes to European matters, notably in terms of governance.
Steinmeier similarly sees post-referendum matters as an issue of minimising the effects of Brexit, dampening the zeal for change and keeping things as least disruptive as possible. Johnson, ever the force of political disruption, was not going to be his man. “To be honest, I find this outrageous. It’s not just bitter for Great Britain. It’s also bitter for the EU.”
One point is to understand the genuine outrage and dissatisfaction with a European project that vanished before the banking and financial classes centred on Brussels and the continent’s major powers. Another is to see how that manifestation makes a difference to Britain.
Johnson tends to be a rather hit-and-miss individual on those points. On the one hand, he sees the aggrandizing nature of the European Union so invasive as to warrant a comparative reference to Hitler. He is certainly off point on much of that, but not about the risks of unaccountable centralisation.
On international relations, he occasionally sounds unconventionally sensible. In 2006, he penned the view the view that Iran should get a nuclear weapons option. “If I were a member for Qom South, I would feel that it was my patriotic duty to equip my country, as fast as possible, with the biggest, shiniest, pointiest and most explosive thermonuclear device on the market.”
He does mark the territory well with certain political figures precisely because he is oblivious to restraining form. His characterisation of Hillary Clinton in 2007 as having “dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” is hard to flaw.
The risk here is whether the insular triumphs over reform. Johnson may well have an assortment of words, thinking that Britain must look farther afield, but that is as much the talk about empire and markets as it an empty reflection. Dirty and dull work, in terms of negotiations on structure and alternative arrangements across the entire spectrum of policy, will still need to be done. Those matters are most likely going to be left to Davis and May.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org